Robert Tom, commercial and business litigation attorney for Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, has been elected shareholder of the law firm.
The 35-year-old Tom grew up in Memphis and attended Memphis University School before going to Emory University in Atlanta to study business and finance. Becoming an attorney was never even on his radar screen.
“It really happened by chance,” he said. “I was keeping my options open.”
A friend was taking the LSAT at the time and Tom decided “on a whim” to take the test as well. The test went well and he took a job as a paralegal after graduation before leaving for New Orleans and Tulane University Law School, where he graduated cum laude in 2004.
“Being a business major, I wanted to do something related to that field or use that background for the type of work I’d be practicing in law,” Tom said. “The first place I started practicing, the litigation they did there was business-related litigation, so it happened by chance that the type of law that I was interested in practicing was the type of law the firm was doing.”
But that firm wasn’t in Memphis. Nor was it in New Orleans. Tom’s future wife, Margaret, a Florida native, had applied to medical schools and her first choice was in Tampa.
In anticipation of her acceptance, Tom went to work there for the firm of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson. Margaret, however, was eventually accepted to a program in Fort Lauderdale, on the other side of the state.
After a couple of years commuting across Florida to see each other, Margaret’s psychiatric residency brought her to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, and the loop was closed for Tom. He’d toured the South – from Georgia to Louisiana to Florida – to begin the process of looking for work back home in Memphis in 2007. It would be a process consisting of only a single interview.
“The timing was right,” he said of job hunting when the legal market wasn’t quite as competitive as it is today. “As far as now, we have a nation of law students and laterals, and rarely do we have job openings, but back then a lot of law firms were posting jobs on websites and that sort of thing.”
Tom sent his resume and was given an interview. The next day he was called with a job offer by David Bearman, recruiting chair for the office.
“Obviously Baker Donelson is one of the leading firms in Memphis and throughout the Southeast, and it was something I really couldn’t say no to,” Tom said. “It was the first job I’d interviewed for in Memphis; I just got a good vibe from my interview and I got a good feeling from the people who work here.”
He took the Tennessee Bar the same year he moved back. With his focus on business and commercial litigation, Tom has handled contract disputes, commercial torts, and real estate and residential mortgage disputes.
Tom has been listed as a Mid-South Super Lawyer Rising Star in Business Litigation, served as secretary of the Tennessee Asian Pacific American Bar Association and is a Legal Diversity Fellow on the Leadership Council. Baker Donelson has a strong pro bono commitment within the community and Tom has worked regularly with the firm’s help clinic.
His workload in Memphis has differed from his time in Tampa where he’d only been to court a couple of times. At Baker Donelson, he was in court from the beginning.
“It was really a ‘throw me into the fire’ kind of situation, which I loved because I hadn’t really gotten that experience in Florida,” he said. “I think the best way to learn is by doing and getting into court and seeing how things go.”
He’s happy to be back home where he and his wife, now a child psychologist in private practice and with Youth Villages, are raising 15-month-old Will, and doing work that, while challenging, is a challenge he has accepted and relished.
“It’s been a great experience,” he said. “Definitely the attorney I am today is based on my experience, I think, with Baker Donelson.”